Apple Is The Richest And Most Under-Staffed Company In Tech

Posit: Apple Is The Richest And Most Under-Staffed Company In Tech ~ Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans)

bugsAnyone who follow Apple closely knows that they are a bundle of paradoxes. One of the most baffling of these is that Apple has literally tens of billions in excess cash but seems always to be chronically short of critical software engineers.

Benedict Evans, above, wonders aloud “whether” Apple was understaffed. Rene Ritchie, below, wonders “why.”

How much by design and how much by scarcity of resource is interesting to ponder. ~ Rene Ritchie (@reneritchie)

I think I know the answer to that question, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Two Possible Reasons


Quality is more important than quantity. One home run is much better than two doubles. ~ Steve Jobs

Apple values quality over quantity and quality takes time, regardless of how many software engineers one puts on a project. A reasonable explanation.


When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there. ~ Steve Jobs

Apple values simplicity and simplicity takes time. Another valid explanation for Apple’s seeming tardiness.

The Real Reason

Here, in my opinion, in the real reason why Apple is always chronically understaffed:

I found that there were these incredibly great people at doing certain things, and that you couldn’t replace one of these people with 50 average people. They could just do things that no number of average people could do. ~ Steve Jobs

Apple tries to hire only exceptional people and refuses to fill in the gaps with average employees.

The following quote is rather long but it is — again, in my opinion — the answer to the question of why cash rich Apple seems to be so continuously understaffed:

[pullquote]It is infinitely better to have a few good men than many indifferent ones. ~ George Washington[/pullquote]

I observed something very early on at Apple, I didn’t know how to explain it then, but I’ve thought about it since. Most things in life, the dynamic range between “average” and the “best” is, at most, two-to-one. If you get into a cab in New York City with the best cab driver, as opposed to the average cab driver, you’re probably going to get to your destination with the best cab driver maybe thirty percent faster… Or a CD player, the difference between the best CD player and the average CD player is what? Twenty percent? So two-to-one is a big dynamic range in most of life. In software — and it used to be the case in hardware too — the difference between the average and the best is 50 to one. Maybe one hundred to one. Very few things in life are like this, but what I’ve been lucky enough to spend my life in is like this. ~ Steve Jobs

Is It Worth It?

[pullquote]Two Eskimos were sitting in a kayak chatting. After a while they got a bit chilly, but when they lit a fire in the craft, it sank . . . I guess this just goes to show that you can’t have your kayak and heat it, too.[/pullquote]

The problem with the above philosophy is that it seems to fly in the face of Jobs’ other mantra that “real artists ship.”

In typical Steve Jobs fashion, I think he expected his people to do the impossible — to be understaffed AND to ship on time too. And in typical Steve Jobs fashion, they sometimes — but not always — did the impossible.

Query: Is the tradeoff worth it? Can Apple continue to operate continuously understaffed? Because I believe that it is no accident but, rather, a very conscious policy and a key component of their business model.

Perhaps only posterity will be able to accurately judge.

Stay hungry, stay foolish. ~ Steve Jobs

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

44 thoughts on “Apple Is The Richest And Most Under-Staffed Company In Tech”

  1. You may actually be surprised to hear this from me, but it’s actually part of what I admired about Jobs and Apple. They won’t do crappy. They would rather do a limited subset exceptionally. To ship, one needs to get “over the hump”. One spark makes a whole tank of gas explode, and that’s where a single exceptional person would make a difference over an army of average people.
    Now, back into character…. One company cannot do it all. It means you’re driving at 100 mph, or sitting still. Apple’s insistence of controlling the whole thing, the whole experience, is reminiscent of the obnoxious little girl controlling everything at the tea party. Or the little boy saying “It’s my ball…”. Or a bridezilla. Or Monica on Friends.

    1. “One company cannot do it all. ”

      I don’t think Apple would disagree with you. I think they define themselves more as they only do what important. If they tried to do it all, the result would be crappy.


        1. “It would be the way it should be.”

          It would be the way _you_ want it, not necessarily the way it _should_ be.


          1. No it’s the way it should be because it’s the most inclusive. Doing so harms no one who doesn’t “think different”. 🙂

      1. “I don’t think Apple would disagree with you. I think they define themselves more as they only do what important. If they tried to do it all, the result would be crappy.” – jfutral

        Agreed. Apple feels that they can only do a few things well so they say no to 999 things and only say yes to the things they think they can do and do exceptionally well.

        1. Again, that’s an admirable position. A classy position. The problem comes when they won’t let other’s try and fully won’t allow their user’s to decide.

          1. You see the lack of blu-ray as a negative. I see it as a wise avoidance of a dead-end technology. Fortunately the free market gives us both choices.

          2. You should have the choice ti use it on your own machine. It’s not for Apple to decide for you. Justification beyond the user’s desire is not needed.

          3. So if your car won’t go 150 MPH that’s imposed inflexibility, a negative, and it’s not for the manufacturer to decide for you.

          4. If your car won’t go 150 mph due to technical or legal obstacles it’s one thing. If your BMW won’t go 150 mph when all other cars do, it’s another.
            Remember, I mentioned Blu-Ray as an option. When every other computer does, why shouldn’t my Macs?

          5. “When every other computer does, why shouldn’t my Macs?”

            Because that’s Apple’s choice they get to make.


          6. So go to OWC and buy one. It IS for Apple to decide what they do and don’t sell.


          7. There really is no true solution. OWC’s and the like essentially rip a Blu-Ray in order to use it. A legal gray area.

            I agree it’s Apple’s choice whether to sell one. That’s why it’s Apple that’s being criticized. They don’t include HDCP in order for anyone else to do so in a normal fashion either. That makes them even worse because now they are deciding for me.

          8. “Now they are deciding for me.”

            Hogwash. They’ve decided for themselves and it is no secret. If you decide to go Mac either knowing or not knowing this, it isn’t Apple’s fault. I hear people have success using Windows in Bootcamp or Parallels. Not concerned with Blu-ray myself, (since it is dead-end tech anyway) I’ve never bothered to find a solution.


          9. What is hogwash is Apple deciding for the user. Even if the user opts to not buy a Mac for that reason, Apple still eliminated the option, and remains subject to criticism. No one would be forcing them to provide it, they are preventing other’s from providing it. It’s petty, controlling, and should not be.

            What? I need to buy a PC in addition to a Mac if I want to watch Blu-Ray on a computer and still have a Mac?

          10. “Apple deciding for the user”

            That’s not how free-will works, unless you are a Calvinist, which is possible.

            “What? I need to buy a PC in addition to a Mac if I want to watch Blu-Ray on a computer and still have a Mac?”

            Or buy a Blu-ray player. Or just don’t buy a Mac. Your choice. I would even encourage you, if Blu-ray was _that_ important to you, to not even consider a Mac. You won’t be happy.


          11. Sorry, I edited as you typed this…
            And why should I be able to have a Mac and not be left “wanting”?

          12. Frankly, I’m not sure why you aren’t as upset with HDCP, especially if you are all about open, which HDCP is the exact opposite.


          13. I don’t like HDCP, but it’s required. That blame lies with the Blu_Ray consortium. Apple’s not including it is their fault.

          14. The only odd thing I find is that Apple is (was?) part of the Blu-ray consortium. Maybe they know something about the licensing than the public does.


          15. I’m sure that’s where the “bag of hurt” lies. These are premium priced products however, and I have little sympathy for the supplier paying licensing fees for a premium item. Or, if BR were an option, they could be passed to the option.

          16. I’m really slow in catching up with this, but it is certainly not true that apple has prohibited the use of Blu-ray. It just chose not to build in support, and I think that is a wise decision because the number of people for whom BR is worthwhile is pretty small. If you want to play or author BR on your iMac or iBook, the choice is yours with an external drive. But Apple has clearly decided that internal optical drives are not part of the long-term design goal.

          17. I think my comments clearly object to the inhibition of third parties supporting it. I don’t care if Apple themselves provide the drives.

            Lack of HDCP support is what stops it. The OS doesn’t support it (even as an option). Any Apple display does not support it, including the iMac. The few programs that permit third party BR drives to work require an internet connection to download the decryption keys (essentially ripping the BR on the fly).

            Though we can debate BR over streaming, I don’t care if it’s one person that wants it. The computer should not be an obstacle. It should be an enabler.

          18. That’s not entirely true. Apple does (or did at one point) support HDCP. Blu-ray is not the only place it is required. You can stream a movie that requires HDCP. After that it is up to the screen to support HDCP. DVI works. VGA does not. No amount of HDCP/Blu-ray support will allow a Blu-ray or any HDCP content to display over a VGA connection.

            And if you check out the OWC blog there is a software player that will play Blu-ray movies on their drive.


          19. True.
            The OWC player needs to be connected to the internet to download the encryption keys (tantamount to ripping on the fly), and from what I read performs horribly.

          20. The most recent blog post from OWC, they seem pleased with the performance.


          21. Have you considered that there may be technical reasons beyond mere licensing costs that prevented Apple from deploying Blu-Ray on OS X? That “bag of hurt” encompasses the technical requirements for including of Blu-Ray along with licensing fees.

            Microsoft had to design protected paths starting from the display & device drivers and throughout their OS to meet those requirements. That kind of change may have been too much for Apple with its accompanying risks for a very small reward knowing that Blu-Ray has a limited lifespan.

          22. When a less premium Windows computer can do it, I sure expect a very premium Apple computer to be able to. At least as an added cost option (which is me being magnanimous).

          23. “What is hogwash is Apple deciding for the user.” – klahanas

            When you buy a piano, you choose how to play it. However, you don’t choose how it is designed, i.e., where the black keys and the petals go.

            If you knew anything about design, you would know how terribly foolish your statement is. Apple decided for the user with the iPad and it’s a huge success. Microsoft refused to make any decisions with Windows 8 and it’s an unmitigated disaster.

          24. A better analogy would be a synthesizer, where I CAN remap the keys. This is a synthesizer that forbids certain genres, certain instrumental sounds, and certain tempos. Why? Because the manufacturer said so.
            Talk about foolish!

          25. But neither the synthesizer maker nor the piano maker claims that one is the other. And no one who buys a synthesizer thinks they are getting a piano and vice versa. You are complaining because Apple doesn’t make something they never claimed to make. To me, this is like buying a piano and complaining that it isn’t a synthesizer. if you want a synthesizer, you shouldn’t buy a piano.


          26. Right. But in Mr. Kirk’s analogy, a synthesizer is much more fitting than a piano. These ARE computers, there are indeed other computers (the vast majority) that have set certain expectations. I am much more forgiving of technical limitations than policy limitations. I have no problem with “best practices” either, so long as they they remain voluntary. On a versatile device such as a computer, involuntary policy limitations stink.

          27. “You should have the choice to use it on your own machine. It’s not for Apple to decide for you.” – klahanas

            You are completely and utterly wrong. You don’t understand what choice is. Apple is free to make the product they choose to make. You are free to buy it, buy from another, not buy it or make it yourself. You are not free to compel another to make what you desire.

            When you go to a bookstore, you get to buy the books they choose to sell. It is not censorship if they do not sell a certain type of book, it is choice. Every store everywhere makes choices and then you are free to patronized those stores or not.

            You’ve conflated choice with decisions. Apple decides, you choose. That all their is to it.

          28. -“If you’re not with us you’re against us”
            -“If you don’t speak the language, get the eff out the country”
            Both supported by your binary interpretation of what choice is.

    2. Thats strange – because in the last 7-10 years Apple has been very much they know they can’t do everything, they focus on “we can do this much really well” and then leaves hooks for 3rd parties to grow the platform beyond what they are prepared to put effort in to. MFi accessories and peripherals, their developer programs, the App & iBook Stores, iBooks Author, the licensing of their MDM protocol are all efforts to allow the platform to be extended in ways Apple itself would never provide focus on, but still have some quality control. Those actions – particularly the App Store, created an ecosystem that really levelled the playing field and changed the dynamics of the commercial software ecosystem.

      They took a big business risk in backing out of servers and management almost completely, and trying to build an ecosystem around the front end, that played nice with multiple vendors in the back end.

      If you want a company that is closer to trying to do everything itself, you’d really have to point the finger at Samsung.

      Apple solution : Device platform with a wide choice of Apps from a bunch of different vendors that link to a wide choice of certified peripherals – e.g. Fitness apps hooking to HRMs or sports activity bands

      Samsung solution: Samsung branded device with Samsung skinned OS , running Samsung branded Apps connecting to Samsung branded peripherals.

      And it kind of makes sense in terms of their macro level approaches – Apple doesn’t really have an equivalent to the experience of waking up in their Samsung built house, mortgaged by Samsung, insured by Samsung, full of Samsung whitegoods and consumer electronic items, gets into their Samsung made car, drives down a Samsung funded and constructed road, to work in a building built by Samsung and property managed by Samsung.

      Apple is generally not about total control of everything, its usually about an obsessive level of control of about the 66-80% of the range of experiences with the product, and they leave hooks/extensions/partners to grow applicability of a platform to the rest.

      You’ve really got a spectrum with stuff like AOSP and Jolla at one end, then Google Android, Microsoft and Apple in the middle with different shades of partner support/shafting and control at different times, then Samsung, and finally Amazon at the other extreme.

  2. In fairness, though, Apple does have depth. I think you will see it with today’s announcement of the impending retirement of CFO Peter Oppenheimer, an 18-year veteran, to be replaced by Luca Maestra.

    1. I think that the rule I was espousing in the article dealt with filling out the rank and file, not in dealing with the leadership positions. There are usually only a few, select leaders in any company or organization but once the organization becomes successful, it’s not unusual to suffer from bloat. Apple seems to keep their staff lean and even, perhaps, too lean.

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